Numerous foster carers have contacted Newsroom since our investigation last week highlighted a change in the children’s ministry policy to take back tamariki from even ‘forever care’

Oranga Tamariki’s change in policy to place tamariki back with whānau and Iwi has prompted a flood of messages from foster carers saying the way the agency is activating this legislation is far from child centred and is like being at the end of a swinging pendulum.

Newsroom’s latest investigation Oranga Tamariki: A New Wave of Trauma showed the agency removing children two and a half years after they had been placed by social workers in what was to be their “forever home” and moving them to whānau they had spent less than a fortnight getting to know.

The story was one of many removals that appear to be a response in part to new legislation known as section 7AA, brought in a month after a 2019 Newsroom investigation NZ’s own Taken Generation revealed Oranga Tamariki had been uplifting pēpi Māori when they shouldn’t have been.

Section 7AA has shifted Oranga Tamariki’s focus from “a safe, loving home for every child” to placing children “back with whānau” – however, there are deep concerns the ministry is not using best practice in this process to ensure children’s needs come first.

In the course of Newsroom’s current investigations, we spoke to social workers, child attachment specialists, kaumatua and caregivers. All agree the needs of the child must be front and centre in every decision, and that 7AA is vital in upholding the right of tamariki Māori to be connected to their culture and whakapapa.

But they are also united in saying tamariki and rangatahi are being removed from stable placements with inadequate transition programmes and are being re-traumatised in the process – many of them having already had a trauma background.

For tamariki who have been disconnected from their iwi, hapū and whānau, experts say how they are transitioned back is paramount and must be considered on a case-by-case basis, not through a blunt, one-size-fits-all process.

Following the documentary last week, Newsroom received messages from carers around the country who have had similar experiences with the agency, with many describing the agency’s practices as “cruel” and “inhumane”.

The documentary and related stories have since been removed from this site by court order, at the behest of the Government’s top lawyer, Solicitor-General Una Jagose, until a full hearing can be held in a fortnight.

Below are some of the stories we received, including one from a caregiver who describes coping with a life-threatening illness as worse than dealing with Oranga Tamariki:

Example 1: Departmental neglect of children

I write to add to the list of concerned foster carers and the systemic abuse and underlying departmental neglect of children in care.

The carers who take in these vulnerable children and give them a hope for the future see them exposed to secondary trauma and, in my view, victimised by Oranga Tamariki.

We see these children who generally suffer developmental trauma and have significant needs over their lifespan not being supported.

My husband and I are at a point where we have been told that, while I am Māori, I am not iwi. We wait for a meeting to discuss the children’s future. They have lived with us for almost four years and the baby many years. One child has lived with us only.

Example 2: Six social workers in three years

From a caregiver’s perspective, OT’s systems are not working. OT are putting money and section 7AA before the needs of children. As a caregiver my voice seems dismissed by OT and I have concerns for caregiver wellbeing.

The decisions social workers face are hard and as caregivers collectively we want children to go back to whānau if it’s the right move for the children. Most importantly: where is the voice of the child? We must do better at meeting the needs of our Māori children in terms of whānau, iwi and hapū connections, but causing further trauma must be weighed up.

We have battled to get some family therapy to help make a difference to our wee man and his trauma damaged brain. OT are now refusing to continue to pay for family therapy as there’s been no big change in our foster child. He was in five different homes before he was three years old – slow incremental change is what we need to see.

I was terrified earlier this year when his social worker questioned whether he should be with us any more since we were finding his behaviour challenging and asking for help.

I am frustrated by social workers not returning calls or emails.

I am concerned at social workers not understanding trauma and attachment.

Stop restructuring. My son has had six social workers in three years, twice because of restructuring. These are kids who find change hard and OT is making it harder.

Value and cherish your good social workers. Reduce their caseloads so they have time to be present for children and carers.

Address the issue of home for life with carers – be honest and transparent with what’s happening.

Finally, find respite carers. It looks good on paper that OT is providing 20 nights respite but anecdotally many families don’t have anyone able to do this and OT does not support this.

There are so many ineptitudes going on, and speaking from the group of 12-15 carers who I regularly talk to because we have done courses in trauma and attachment – which social workers are only now doing – I know their voice.

Their voice is that social workers are not available. Two people in the group last week didn’t even know who their caregiver social worker was – no one had [been in] touch. I am really lucky with our caregiver social worker but our son’s social worker has been on sick leave for two and a half weeks – two appointments cancelled.

We have asked for help in the past and instead of seeing it as a great thing for us and the child, we have had a social worker questioning the placement.

I had an amazing call from my son’s biological grandmother yesterday morning as she was so worried that our son was going to be moved and stating that she will help us in any way possible. These removals or possible removals are putting emotional pain and pressure on whānau and caregivers.

OT do not see caregivers as important in terms of meeting and information giving … we/our voices are often missed out of information gathering and a lot of people feel like they are not valued.

Example 3: OT adds to the trauma

Thank you for your journalism on such a gut-wrenching story. Oranga Tamariki have so dropped the ball and are re-traumatising children. I too have had one uplifted, recently. My story also involves race, although not Māori.

I have been challenged by Oranga Tamariki for merely trying to support the child in my placement and to insist they had a “lawyer for child” so their voice could be heard and they could be represented independently. It’s yet another gut wrenching case.

As caregivers we open up our homes and hearts to support children needing to heal from trauma, just to see Oranga Tamariki add to that trauma, and then try put the blame on the caregiver.

Example 4: People treat their animals better

I fostered a severely disabled young boy. Apparently his family couldn’t take him because of his disabilities, but I don’t think Oranga Tamariki even looked. I had to fight OT for him to even have any contact with his family.

We rarely saw Oranga Tamariki social workers, of which he had several, some even left without even letting us know. Then I got diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. His and my world changed forever from that moment. Decisions about him were made without Oranga Tamariki even meeting with me. What happened after that was truly cruel how they treated him. He was taken from my care. No one could believe it, including all his medical professionals, family and friends.

I did have a huge fight on my hands even to get to see him after he was moved – and he wasn’t even moved to relatives. I spent months fighting Oranga Tamariki and their system when I should have been concentrating on my health. It was the most horrific experience of my life dealing with this unbelievably cruel agency.

In my opinion they were abusing his rights and I told them that and they refused to acknowledge they would have caused him any trauma which is what stunned everyone who knew my little boy. He was absolutely traumatised by their actions and decisions. I still have to fight the system to have access and I fear by sharing my story even anonymously they will remove the very little access I have.

OT don’t respond to any of my concerns, or even acknowledge when I contact them.

Dealing with a life threatening illness is easier than dealing with OT. They didn’t care about him at all. I didn’t expect them to care about me, but they didn’t care about him, he was just a number to them, not even a name. I have never in all my life ever experienced or witnessed the kind of trauma these people did to this little boy. People treat their animals better. They are the child abusers.

Example 5: The only family the child’s ever known

I just wanted to write and tell you that I saw the Newsroom story you did ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’. I bawled my eyes out as this hit close to home as I too am a foster parent with a child in my care that is in the process of being returned to whānau, even though we were asked by the child’s lawyer if we would take the child on permanently.

Our little one was placed with us when she was just a few weeks old (before the new [7AA] legislation change). Now [the child] has just turned three years old. We are the only home [they have ever] been in. There was a failed transition back to [a] close family member (which caused her trauma) and since then there has been no contact with any whānau. Suddenly OT have come forward and said she is to transition to an aunty.

Forget 14 days transition … this little person will be lucky to get 14 hours. To our little one we are the only family. [The child] is very settled in a safe, secure, and loving environment. I have heard other stories from other caregivers since your story came out. We have contacted a lawyer to see what else we can do to stop this. I just wanted to say thank you for bringing this out into the public

Example 6: Money and appearances

My family has had a whānau of siblings under their care for over three years now and they have looked after them and looked out for them as if they were their own. The children come from a whānau that lived in a village in the North Island

One of the kids has only ever been with us. We are Māori and we learnt te reo to keep the culture and language at the forefront for the kids and we strive to be the best guardians we can be for the benefit of the children.

Ever since day one it has been a struggle with Oranga Tamariki, they have fought us on getting the children therapy for their traumas and for their underlying mental and physical health issues that stemmed from the trauma. They said because of lack of funding and because they didn’t believe the children needed therapy, glasses, doctor visits etc. they couldn’t give them or my family the help they needed so desperately. We have been threatened with the uplifting of the children because we asked for therapy for the children and therapy for my family and have also been followed and approached by the children’s parents. When we brought up the fact that we were followed and approached, Oranaga Tamariki said we were just being hypervigilant, that it wasn’t happening and brushed us off.

It is clear to me and has been for a long time that Oranga Tamariki is not holding the best interests of the children under their care at the highest of standards. There have been a few occasions where we have been told that a family member is going to take the children so we need to come to terms with them being taken away and the children have been told that they are leaving and then all of a sudden last minute the family member is deemed unsafe and then we go back to square one.

This, as you can imagine, is a big problem for the kids, they get told they have to leave us which makes them anxious, they act out because they are nervous and unsure about whether they will be safe and loved by the people they are going to live with and then they get hit with the news that it’s not happening anymore so they become very angry and upset so they act out even more, in some cases they have hurt themselves because they were upset or angry.

Being a carer for foster kids is one of the most rewarding things you can do and a privilege, you get to watch them grow and become amazing people, you get to teach them how to read, ride a bike, swim and just be themselves, but when Oranga Tamariki comes at you with these threats of uplifting or when they give backhanded comments and put all of these roadblocks in front of you which make it so much harder to just be a loving and caring caregiver, it makes you really question why you’re doing it at all.

Taking care of foster kids has been my family’s dream for so many years and now they are just worried about the children being taken away for no reason at all, to be sent to a place where the children will be put in harm’s way, won’t be looked after and be traumatised all over again for no reason.

There is so much more I could tell you but I don’t want to move away from the matter at hand, which is Oranga Tamariki is more focused on money and appearances than the absolute best for the children.

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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